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Experimentation Versus Qualitative Standards

By Stephen Eliot

“There is less deference to quality hierarchies or established brands, and more experimentation by consumers.” That is answer with which an old CGCW friend, wine market analyst Christian Miller, responded in a short Q & A piece in Meinigers Wine Business International* when asked what he thought were the biggest changes he has seen/is seeing the wine industry.

Now, I am not sure whether Christian was thinking in terms of the market as a whole or of one or another generational or economic segment when formulating his response, but the popular wine press, both professional and unpaid, would in general seem to support the ideas that the decline of brand loyalty and the embrace of experimentation are obvious trends. However, it is the notion that “quality hierarchies” are losing importance that is, for me, the most intriguing.

I assume what Christian is referring to here is the lessening influence of major critics and “scores” on consumer buying decisions, but, in an era of unfettered populism when the simple concepts of “good” or “bad” are called into question and viewed as the reactionary relics of objectivity in a newly enlightened, subjective social-media world, I wonder if the very idea of “quality” itself has become a secondary concern of the new generation of wine drinkers. Does moving from one bottle to the next in constant experimentation threaten the idea of generally agreed-upon “quality” as criteria in a wine’s selection?

I rather think this is where income and age come into play. I certainly understand that when the so-called standard-setting wines are priced beyond the reach of millennial and middle-class budgets, they become irrelevant. But, among the great myths of fine wine these days is that quality is relative and that the educated palate is a chimera.

I worry that those who endlessly labor to demystify wine might have done us all a disservice. Great wine should be mysterious, it should inspire contemplation and thought. It should be more than tasty and “fun.” And, its ability to be more, for many of us, defines quality.

Change and change again may have become the currency of “cool,” but obsessive experimentation must necessarily lead to preference. What after all is the point of experimentation but to find those wines that one believes to be good, better and best? Not for everyone, of course, perhaps not even for most, but among those for whom wine becomes a passion, something more than an everyday tipple or social lubricant, quality will be an abiding concern. It has always been thus for dyed-in-the-wool wine devotees, and those of us so smitten could care less that the “hierarchies of quality” are no longer seen as a significant marketing tool for the broader wine industry. We know a great wine when we taste it, we create our own hierarchies…and, most significantly, we most always agree.



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